Is Cliff Lee good at pitching? Yes! Will an extended layoff affect the Yankees? Only if they lose! Did the Yankees have better options than A.J. Burnett for their Game 4 starter? Nope. Are there more important questions about the American League Championship Series? Yes.
1. Can the Yankees beat Cliff Lee? Yes, though that won't be easy. The Yankees' offense greatest strength has always been its patience, but Lee negates that completely. He walked 0.76 batters per nine innings, the best rate in baseball. He strikes out 7.84 per nine innings, so he is not someone like Carl Pavano, who walks almost no one but pitches to contact. Control freaks like Lee and Roy Halladay have had the best rate of success against the Yankees. Think back to other pitchers who have had their way with the team going back to the 1990s. David Wells, Curt Schilling and the others all threw strikes. They are almost immune to the Yankees' strategy of waiting them out.
If the Yankees want to take pitches, they'll be down in the count before they know it. Unless Lee is off his game, the Yankees will have their work cut out for them. Still, the Yankees hit for power and are certainly able to take advantage of opportunities. If they have their chances against Lee, they'll need to cash them in. After watching Lee dominate the Rays in Game 5 of the AL Division Series, the Yankees do not want this series to go seven games. (Not that they'd want it to go seven games without seeing the Rays lose, but the larger point remains.)
2. How good is the rest of the Texas rotation? C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis and Tommy Hunter all had nice enough years, but they're not Lee and they have their share of problems. Wilson, who will start Game 1, walked a league-leading 93 batters this season. To put that in perspective, Lee has walked 95 the past three seasons. Wilson posted a 3.35 ERA this season, but his FIP was 3.56 and his xFIP was 4.20. In three starts against the Yankees this season, he surrendered 11 runs in 14 1/3 innings. The Yankees may match up poorly against Lee (who doesn't?), but they have all the tools to take down Wilson.
Lewis, not Wilson, figures to be the second-most dangerous starter from a Yankees perspective. Despite a higher ERA than Wilson, the righty posted better walk and strikeout rates. No Rangers starter, including Lee, strikes out more batters per nine innings than Lewis. He doesn't have the track record of Lee -- or throw with his left arm -- but the Yankees can't take him lightly in Game 2.
Hunter has a gopher-ball problem. He served up 1.5 per nine innings this season. With his only start coming in Game 4 at Yankee Stadium, that could play a large role. Like Wilson, Hunter has an artificially low ERA. Everyone is wondering how the Yankees will win a game in which A.J. Burnett pitches, but guess which of the Game 4 starters has the better FIP? That's right, Burnett.
3. Can the Yankees win with Burnett on the mound? Yes. He is facing Hunter, who is hardly Cy Young. Also, Burnett is still a Major League pitcher capable of performing. Don't expect this game to be a tidy, well-pitched affair, though. The Yankees had no choice but to turn to Burnett. They weren't going to have their Games 4-7 starters work on short rest. As River Avenue Blues pointed out on Twitter, Denny Neagle started twice in the 2000 ALCS, a series won by the Yankees in six games. They lost both games in which Neagle pitched, but Burnett's presence is hardly a death knell in Game 4.
As for the other Yankees' starters against the Rangers, the record is mediocre. Sabathia has a 4.29 ERA against the team in 86 innings pitched. Petitte has a 5.29 ERA against them in 146 innings, but Hughes has not allowed a run in 15 innings against Texas. That of course includes a no-hit bid (which he would not have finished anyway) cut short by an injury.
Texas scored several soft runs against the Rays in the ALDS. They have the tools to do that against the Yankees, who have two of the worst throwing catchers in baseball and a minus left side of the infield. The Rangers present enough headahces with hitters like Hamilton -- who is dangerous even while nursing injured ribs -- that the Yankees cannot afford to give away free bases.
4. Should Francisco Cervelli catch A.J. Burnett? Burnett has stunk no matter who has caught him this season, so the backstop shouldn't matter. Posada finished with an underwhelming (for him) .248/.357/.454 line, and Cervelli rallied to finish at .271/.359/.335. He hit .450/.574/.550 over his final 17 games from Aug. 27 to the end of the season. The power is still a huge difference between the two players, though. Besides, Burnett is probably a headcase no matter who the catcher is, and both catchers are terrible at throwing out would-be basestealers. With Burnett on the mound, the Yankees will need to score as many runs as possible, and that means having Posada in the lineup.
5. What are the Rangers' weaknesses? They don't have many. Texas has its offensive stars -- Josh Hamilton, Vladimir Guerrero and Nelson Cruz -- and only a few holes in its lineup. Catchers Bengie Molina and Matt Treanor each had an OPS+ of 60 this season. Elvis Andrus is fast, but he had a .301 slugging percentage.
The Rangers will likely play David Murphy against righties but will turn to Jeff Francoeur against lefties. Any at-bats by Jorge Cantu (.237/.279/.327 since a trade from Florida) or Francoeur against a righty (.296 career OBP) will only help out the Yankees. But Francoeur is playable against lefties. Texas finished the season fifth in the Majors in runs scored, so the Yankees will need to keep the lesser players off the bases to keep the stars from really doing damage.
As for the bullpens, the Yankees will continue to rely on Kerry Wood and David Robertson to get to Mariano Rivera. Neftali Feliz is a top-flight closer for the Rangers, who also have Alexi Ogando as a hard-throwing setup man. The Rangers can turn to the Bros. Darren for situational means. Darren Oliver, who faced more righties than lefties, held portsiders to a .529 OPS this season. Darren O'Day limited righties to a .542 OPS (and lefties to .561). The Rangers' bullpen has few holes.
Given the pitching matchups, the Yankees would feel most comfortable if they won the first two games of this series in Texas. If they split those games, they would need to win either Game 3 (started by Lee) or Game 4 (started by Burnett) to avoid falling behind three games to one. The Yankees have the ability to do both those things, but they're no lock to do either. The Rangers will not be the pushovers the Twins were, but the Yankees are the better club. As with every postseason series, time will tell how much that means.